Internet fame comes on like an earthquake, with little warning. In a matter of hours, a video can go viral and be viewed 50 million times. Then it (usually) recedes into a very long, thin afterlife. Here, nine YouTube sensations whose lives were upended briefly in the past decade (plus one from the prehistoric web era, before YouTube made its debut in 2005) speak about this odd, relatively new kind of fame. Most embraced the experience, seeing where it would take them. Some ended up in dark places. A couple have made it their living and found themselves with new careers. Others stepped away, opting out of the flame wars. Pay attention: Someday, the accidental celebrity could be you.
I lost a lot of close friends over it — people I’d been friends with since I was 10, people I grew up playing soccer with. One group of girls took me to this party at the University of South Carolina, and I walk in, and the entire USC baseball team surrounded me and bashed me with the harshest, meanest comments I had ever heard. And somebody once put a letter in my parents’ mailbox about how my body was going to be eaten alive by ants and burned in a freak fire. And then it said, in all caps, GO DIE CAITE UPTON, GO DIE FOR YOUR STUPIDITY. That’s the kind of stuff people would say to me for two years.
I definitely went through a period where I was very, very depressed. But I never let anybody see that stuff, except for people I could trust. I had some very dark moments where I thought about committing suicide. The fact that I have such an amazing family and friends, it really, really helped. [Begins to tear up] Sorry, it’s just really emotional. This is the first time I’ve actually been able to talk about it. It was awful, and it was every single day for a good two years. I’ve only spoken to my fiancé about how I felt in those moments truthfully, and my best friend. And, recently, my mom. But, like, my dad doesn’t even know yet.
The past few years, going brunette, I have not had any recognition for the Miss Teen USA Pageant at all. But I also get recognized for having a similar name to Kate Upton. So I’ll go into my auditions and be like, “Yes, yes, I know — I’m the other one.”
I am married now, so my average day is spent with my wife. We are practicing sports, listening to music, traveling, doing picnics. Nothing changed about my identity or lifestyle after being famous. I am still living in the same neighborhood, with same friends. But if I wanted — and it is still possible — I could live in the U.S. Hollywood promised me a villa, servants, and limo, but I didn’t want that.
The best part of being famous is that you can give messages to millions of people who love you around the world and orient them toward good things. Also, having many friends from different parts of world — including ladies, of course.
[On Borat] Of course I am mad at him — wouldn’t you be? It’s disrespect, without my permission, earning lots of money. This is stealing. If they had even a little dignity, Borat and the company could apologize to me, but they didn’t even do that. I don’t want to descend to their level. I transferred it to the greatest court and greatest judge, Allah. He will make them pay even if they are not aware.
I’m one of the few where my video directly affected my current career. A lot of other people who go viral have to switch careers, or they never really get to maximize such an event. For me, I was doing something already — working this inspirational-comedian idea, and doing the dance — and then that was like a 20-year boost of marketing and exposure. I was lucky because what I got famous for was something I was already becoming good at.
The most watched video back then was the like Smosh Pokemon Theme Song, and the average age of a YouTuber was about 12 years old. So my video was kind of one of the first that people could related to past the age of 20. And because my video was right when YouTube was becoming popular, a lot of news stations would use it to show what’s on there.
I did a second video, but we don’t talk about that one. I did it right during the big legal turmoil over song rights, when Viacom was suing YouTube, and Sony was suing YouTube. I’d gotten the streaming rights, but it was only for a few songs. In those early days, it was the Wild, Wild West. YouTube didn’t know what to do. Now they have the technology to recognize songs in the videos, and YouTube just distributes the money accordingly. But back then I didn’t want the owner of the rights — and there are 30 songs in that video — to say, “We need you to take that down.” So we had to put it on a different channel. Now that all that’s resolved, the third won’t have those problems.
When my video took off, I got a call from them where it’s like “Hello?” “Hi, please hold for Jeff Zucker, the president of NBC.” I’m like still going, “Huh, what?” when he comes on the line and says, “We’re having this meeting in a couple weeks and I was wondering if you’d be able to come talk to us about internet stuff.” And it was so interesting being in the room — we were listening to the lawyers and their mind-set of “We need to take every person’s content down.” They were suggesting spending millions of dollars on telling people to. And Jeff said, “No, we need to let people just have it. Stop trying to put a finger in the hole when the dam has a thousand others.”
I think the biggest — I don’t really want to say problem, but … [is that] I’ll be turning 40 in March. At most I have maybe just 10 more years of being able to physically do the dance. It’s a taxing thing. The running joke is that I say it’s eventually going to go from being funny to being sad. But I don’t regret anything, not in the slightest. If I could go back and redo anything, it would be that I’d have had a bunch of different merchandise and products to sell. Or maybe do a better job of getting viewers’ emails, so I could just send them a ton of stuff.
I only thought I was getting a job at the local radio station. I knew nothing about viral internet sensations or anything, so when I went down the following day, I saw all types of satellite trucks, news cameras, it was just phenomenal. But I didn’t think any of that was pertaining to me, because when you see CNN, ABC, NBC, all these trucks, you know something’s big. Well, when I walked in that door and all these microphones and cameras were thrust into my face, and just couldn’t believe it. I was an emotional wreck. “Uh, hi, would you like to come on the Today show?” “Hi, this is ABC.” Everybody was fighting for exclusives. It was ridiculous. I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy all this quick adulation? But it became invasive. I was like, “Oh, God, you gotta know my mother? My children? My girlfriend?” We sold my story to NBC for an exclusive, but I’d given out my mother’s address, and CBS This Morning went and found her. Took her away and sequestered her in a hotel in Manhattan so they could have the 17-year reunion of me and my mom. They finally called and said, “Ted, we’re going to take you to see your mother,” and that excited me, but I had no idea there were going to be 35 cameras there.
My platform is simple. First, I want to change the way the power structure deals with homeless military veterans. After all of their years of service, and them protecting the freedoms of Americans, they come back only to become discouraged and disenchanted. They can’t find housing, they can’t find nothing. Secondly, homeless Americans, period—I want to eradicate that. We have more space dedicated to golf courses than we have land appropriated to build housing for homeless Americans. I think we need to shut down some of those country clubs and use that land for helping the homeless. Then I want to definitely challenge states’ handling of Fair Housing laws. And I’m tired of them outsourcing our jobs. We’ve got sweatshops in Thailand, China—you name it, you’ve got little kids manufacturing name-brand things there. Nike! I’m not bashing Nike, don’t get me wrong, but bring those jobs back to America.
Peterson: Kevin put it online because we had a few family and friends who couldn’t make it to the wedding, and he emailed it to the wedding party and our parents — that was it. When we woke up the next morning, it had 100,000 views, and within a few days it was up to a million. I didn’t even know what a viral video was. We got asked to start doing dances at celebrity weddings. The offers rolling in were so intense. Some gossip magazine knocked on Kevin’s grandmother’s door.
We rode it for a few days. But then we sort of hit this point where we had to make a decision — we either need to get on this internet-sensation train, or turn off our cell phones and hide in the basement. So that’s what we ended up doing. We really turned off our phones and sent an email to family and friends, who were getting hounded also, that said “We’re going to try to shut this down collectively.” Like “One, two, three, don’t answer the phone.” For the most part I think we’re happy with that decision.
We used the Chris Brown song, which we were uncomfortable with after it went viral. It was a few months after the Rihanna incident. Because we used his song without permission, all of the money from the video goes to Sony Records — and him, basically. They put a copyright infringement on us, but decided to leave the video up, which shot that song up into the top ten even though it was like two years old. So not only did we use a Chris Brown song, but we were making him money. There’s a TED Talk on it, weirdly—an executive at YouTube talks about the whole process and their relationship with Sony.
We did put up a website, and money still trickles in [for the Sheila Wellstone Institute, an anti-domestic-violence activist group] — every time we think about taking the website down, we realize that we still get donations all these years later, which is really neat. I think we’re past $60,000 or so now.
Harry: [Without the video] I probably wouldn’t be going to the school I go to.
Howard (their dad): All four boys go to a nice school, which we pay for. What the video has done for us is redefine normal. Coming home from school and having an interview on Skype is normal.
Harry: We go to America sometimes; we go to London.
Howard: We view everything with YouTube as a hobby. Life comes first, but one weekend we might be filming a commercial. People know about you when you meet them —
Charlie: That’s scary. Howard: So if someone who’s seen one of those comes up and says, “I saw you skiing,” that must feel a little strange.
Charlie: Yeah. It feels like they’re spying.
Howard: Ha — is
that really what you mean? They’re intruding on your life?
Howard: Okay. We’ve never had this discussion before. You know, there’s a set of people who take it as a badge of honor to get bitten
Charlie: And then they scream!
Howard: We have an unwritten rule. If someone asks to be bitten, Charlie gets to bite however hard he wants to.
I was in graduate school and working toward my Ph.D. I thought I’d be a history professor. But I’m not passionate about “teaching” or “research” as it thrives in that environment. I’d rather make history than teach it.
Pretend that every week, you print out a new batch of updated business cards. Fame is like walking into a room where many strangers have one or two of your old business cards in their pocket. Many people recognize me from the viral song “Chocolate Rain,” or from Tosh.0, or from America’s Got Talent, or from singing “Mr. Grinch,” or from being parodied on South Park, or from casting video games on Twitch. Some people just know I’m “that guy from the Internet,” or that they’ve heard my voice somewhere. Several times per year, a stranger asks whether I did “Purple Rain.” I correct them. These touchstones — correct and incorrect — are all like old business cards. I’m never sure which ones a stranger carries. In 2007, the internet had the Rodney Dangerfield problem in traditional entertainment—no respect at all. I could go to major talent agencies and say, “Hey! I get great numbers online!” They’d reply with “So?” In 2015, internet influence is an accepted fetish. No hyperbole can describe the way every person and brand is frantically inflating social-media metrics as a form of “digital plastic surgery.” We all want to be influencers. Every facet of our selfactualization is enhanced by appearing to be the biggest digital Pied Piper. Digital influence is now the costume of our century and a problematic eugenics for sorting human value.
I have become more popular on platforms with very little user-regulation — like YouTube in 2007, Twitch today, and even Reddit and 4Chan — than on platforms with very high user-regulation — like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter today. There is more “trolling” on platforms with less user control. Useranonymity may enable some abuse and victimization. However, I also hypothesize that countercultural modes of popularity take off more easily when there’s consumer anonymity. Mutatis mutandis, established modes of popularity take off more easily when there’s less consumer anonymity. It is hard to create Derrida’s fracture in the repetition of power structures when the loins of civil society log every person’s digital utterance. It’s no coincidence that entertainment from Keeping Up With the Kardashians to Grand Theft Auto fulfills our fantasies of acting without social consequence.
[Have you talked to anyone else who inspired a meme?] You act like there’s a halfway house where me, Keenan Cahill, Gary Brolsma, and Rebecca Black take turns mentoring the current month’s memes. I meet these people in passing. There isn’t an epiphany of kinship like All Quiet on the Western Front. Perhaps it’s not quiet enough on the digital front.
I’m a natural showman? Thanks. But it’s easy to get the world to say that. It’s not easy to get a casting director to say that. Nor is it easy to draw a line from surface likability to popularity. Lets be honest — in the era of reality TV and its transition to social-media fan bases … the most popular “showmen” are normal people who fall apart spectacularly, sometimes on cue. Maybe I haven’t found the right show.
I had been doing videos on MySpace a whole year, and “Leave Britney Alone” was really the first time that I spoke about pop culture. People couldn’t get how I would do these skits where I was acting and doing comedy, but then have this one video where, yes, I did mean “leave Britney alone.” It was easier to just play to their perception, and I ran with this idea that I’m a lunatic who cries over celebrities. I thought I would get a chance later to expand on who I really was.
There weren’t many viral videos yet, and I encountered cyberbullying before I was aware what it is. At 19, I couldn’t handle it, and it kind of caused an identity crisis. That wasn’t the way I wanted to be introduced to the world. But in the moment, I just thought, Okay, I have to run with this, as my ticket out of Tennessee. Because no one’s going to take time to learn the backstory, like how my mom was on meth that same year. Which is ultimately why I ended up deleting my YouTube. Now I just use Facebook. On YouTube, with the anonymity, I would log in and be like, “Hey guys, here’s an update,” and the response would always be “Go kill yourself.” On Facebook, I feel comfortable, because people have to actually log in, and you can ban them.
I had this cushy job in Rochester — I quit and moved here, and then three months later my life changed. For that particular press conference, because it was an emergency, I wanted the deaf community to see the urgency. So, yes, Bloomberg may have had a flat affect, but the content of what he was explaining was very serious, and if I didn’t show that, they wouldn’t have taken it seriously.
Originally, I did want to run and hide. It was too much attention for me. I mean, is it cool to be spoofed on Saturday Night Live? Of course. But a lot of different late-night talk shows were spoofing me, and it felt like they were mocking the language. The Chelsea Lately one — she was doing something with her breasts — was just disgusting. But Cecily Strong actually did real sign language. So that felt like respect.
That spotlight helped jump-start my career here, and I thought it was a pivotal point to advocate for the deaf community. Prior to Sandy, New York City didn’t have sign-language interpreters for press conferences. Now several states provide them. It’s so rad that that’s what happened. Closed-captioning isn’t always enough.
David Sr.: I was looking at Reddit a while ago, and I saw a video about a dad who was showing his daughter how to chop wood. I was like, Wow, that’s really cool. It’s a daughter and a dad, really kind of folksy and down to Earth. So I made a comment on YouTube, and I identified myself. I said, “Hey, ‘David After Dentist’ dad here. Loved the video. Your relationship with your dad is great — kudos. Good luck.” And the trolls just latched onto me, and just eviscerated me. You know: “You’re just trying to hijack this guy’s thing.”
But that daughter and dad saw my comment, and I spent an hour on the phone with them, just trying to help them navigate the media frenzy that they’re going through. It’s overwhelming. You don’t know what you’re supposed to do, and if there’s money involved, you don’t want them to miss an opportunity. So I kind of walked them through it, and they were just so appreciative. They aren’t the first ones who have reached out over the years for help.
I don’t regret doing it. I will say that moving forward, as David gets older and this thing continues to follow us, it does give me pause to think about when we should just turn all of this over to him, because he’s going to be an adult. And how are we going to navigate that? You know, he’s a teenager now, so he’s very sensitive to attention to himself — he’s a little bit shy. Though there are times where, if it’s a celebrity and they want to engage with him — especially if it were Tim Tebow or somebody like that — I think he would want to pull out the card.
*This article appears in the November 30, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.