Imagine walking down the street and running into a stranger wearing a T-shirt with your face on it. How would you feel if you found out you were the butt of a family’s in-joke for a decade? What about if you saw someone dressed up as you for Halloween? Becoming a meme is an unusual experience; it’s hard to comprehend how it would feel for millions of people to know your face, or to be thought of as “Success Kid”, “Disaster Girl” or “Trying to Hold a Fart Next to a Cute Girl in Class Guy”. Here, we speak to three regular people who became meme-famous and lived to tell the tale.
Maggie Goldenberger: AKA Ermahgerd Girl
“I was about 11 years old, playing dress up at my friend’s house and taking Polaroid photos. I pulled an outfit together from her dress-up box and she put my hair in pigtails and had me put my [dental] retainer in. She gathered some Goosebumps books and told me to give the most excited expression possible. That’s how the photo came about, but I had no idea how it went on to appear on Reddit, which is how it became a meme.
I was backpacking in India [in 2012, at age 23] when I got a message from a friend [about the photo]. It was before smart phones, so I was at an internet café when I found out a guy from high school had posted my photo not knowing it was me.
I was very confused, and over the course of a month I pieced together [how viral the photo had gone]. In 2015, Darryn King from Vanity Fair wrote an article on the meme, and somehow he tracked down a 16-year-old from Canada who found the photo in a public forum and uploaded it to Reddit.
Originally, my friend had put the photo on her MySpace profile, but we were very naive and didn’t realise our MySpace photo albums were all public. That’s how the Canadian discovered the photo and how ‘Ermahgerd Girl’ was born.
I thought the whole thing was very bizarre, and I still do. I’ve seen Ermahgerd cross-stitch patterns, hand-drawn artwork and birthday cards. A new friend had dressed up as me at Halloween almost 10 years ago, which was a funny discovery. The best perk of meme-fame is when I meet someone who has loved the meme and they’re truly excited to meet me.
I think the hardest part has been the invasion of privacy. My brother’s friend posted a lot of personal information and photos of me in Reddit forums to prove it was really me, and that turned me off from coming forward. But once I stepped back away from it and kind of released my attachment of my personal life being associated with the meme, it all felt much better.
During the whole crypto/NFT craze, I was feeling overwhelmed and uneducated, and I reached out to Kyle Craven from the ‘Bad Luck Brian’ meme and Laina Morris, aka ‘Overly Attached Girlfriend’, for help. They were both so kind and generous with their knowledge. I wished I would have reached out to them sooner, as the whole meme process can be very isolating. I realised I wasn’t alone in what I was going through.
I can’t believe the meme is still around after more than 10 years; at the time it came out, I thought for sure it’d be gone in a week. Since that first year, it has had zero effect on my everyday life. I’m currently a nurse living in Phoenix, Arizona, and I spend most of my free time with my partner and our dog.”
Silvia Bottini: AKA First World Problems Woman
“I didn’t even know what a meme was! It was 2011 when the webmaster who built my [acting portfolio] website contacted me and excitedly told me, ‘You’re a meme.’ Even when he explained what it was to me, I didn’t really get it, and I certainly didn’t understand the impact of it.
The photo from the meme had been taken a few years earlier by my ex-boyfriend, who was a photographer. We were living in China and I was modelling for him – for free – doing stock photographs for sites like Getty and Shutterstock. That day, we were shooting in a temple, and I was posing for the photos: meditatingand playing the tourist. Then my ex asked me to cry. I did. I’m a trained actress so I knew how to pull out my emotions and tears. That’s how the picture happened.
When it went viral [as the ‘First World Problems’ meme], I was disappointed because I’d signed a release form with the stock image agencies, which said they would protect my image. They didn’t, and people were saying whatever they wanted on my face. I had no control over how my image was being used – and I still don’t. A few years ago I found out my ex had sold the rights to the image without my knowledge.
There are many versions of the meme, and one really offended me. In Italy, where I’m from, the word ‘penas’ means troubles. Of course, the word is similar to ‘penis’ in English. So the joke went: ‘When I asked God for a life without penas, he must have misunderstood.’ It was written on my face!
I was really upset by it, so much so when I found it on Facebook, I messaged the person who posted it asking them to please take it down because it wasn’t respectful. I didn’t get a response. The internet is a wasteland; once something is out there, anybody can use it.
I don’t get recognised from the meme because it’s a very dramatic image of me, and [in real life] I smile all the time. When people do find out about it, they are usually shocked, then excited. For a ‘non-famous’ person, I’m extremely famous. Millions of people know my face, pretty much everyone who owns a computer or phone has seen my image.
The meme hasn’t had an impact on my acting career. I’m still auditioning here in Los Angles, where I live with my husband and have founded the Rebelot Theatre Company. Recently, I came up with the idea for a webseries, First World Problems: The Movie, because I want to turn my experience into something creative and something good. I want to take back my power and tell my own story.
Chloe Clem: AKA Side-Eyeing Chloe
I’m almost 13 now; I’ve been Side-Eyeing Chloe for 10 years. I still watch the video now and think, ‘Wow that’s me.’ I pretty much invented the side eye.
After I went viral, I remember sitting on my mum’s lap when I was younger and her showing me a photo of me sitting next to 50 Cent in a Cadillac convertible. I was like, ‘I don’t remember being in 50 Cent’s car.’ As well as that, my photo has been photoshopped on Miley Cyrus’ wrecking ball and Taylor Swift’s body. I’ve been called the patron saint of Tumblr and the queen and goddess of the internet.
The best bit of being meme-famous was getting to go to Brazil with Google when I was six. I’m really famous in Brazil; my mum says it’s like the Beatles. All these people came to meet me, and my face was on billboards.
We’ve just moved from Arizona to Tennessee, and recently everyone at my new school found out that I was famous. They’re all like, ‘Oh my gosh you’re the famous girl! Can you sign this for me? Can I have a picture?’
I love doing videos and making people laugh, and one day I want to be an actress. Or a basketball player. To anyone having 15 minutes of fame, I’d say enjoy every moment. It only happened to a few of us, and it goes fast. But I think my meme will live forever.”
Where are they now?
What started as a cute photo of Sammy Griner eating a fistful of sand spiralled into one of the most famous memes on the internet: Success Kid. In 2015, aged nine, he used his viral fame to help raise about $US85,000 for a kidney transplant for his father. It was – wait for it – a success! Now a 17-year-old with jet black hair and a beard (!), Sammy describes himself as a “lazy teenager”.
Side-Eye at Popeyes
When nine-year-old Dieunerst Collin pulled a confused side-eye look at a New Jersey Popeyes restaurant, he had no idea his face would spark a thousand memes. A decade later, the college footballer has signed a sponsorship deal with Popeyes, and his face can now be seen on billboards around America, as well as all over the internet.
Kalin Elisa, the woman behind the squat and squint meme of 2018, admits to getting a kick out of making people on the dotcom laugh. Today, the event-planner and founder of Atlanta-based homeless charity Susie’s House says the only downside of her fame has been guys on Tinder thinking she’s a catfish.
It’s an image etched into our minds: a little girl smirks chillingly at the camera while a fire rages behind her. “There was a spider,” one meme reads. “It’s gone now.” In reality, the photo is of a young Zoë Roth in 2005 watching the local fire department conducting a training exercise. Sixteen years later, Roth sold her childhood photo as an NFT for $US495,000. Burn, baby, burn.
This story origionally appeared in the October issue of marie claire Australia.