Viral Before The Web: What Tabloid Stars From Yesterday Are Up To Today

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Every once in a while, a news story overwhelms the national discussion. In 1997, everyone was talking about Dolly the Sheep; in 1999, Elian Gonzalez was on the front page of every tabloid.

Eventually, the non-stop coverage stops, and these people—or sheep—go back to their relatively normal lives. But that’s not to say that they’re not profoundly affected by their five minutes of fame. We looked at several of the most famous tabloid stories from the past few decades and followed up on their stars to find out what happened next.

Elián González

The story: In 1999, 5-year-old Elián González found himself at the center of an international controversy. His mother had fled Cuba to bring him to the United States; their boat sank, and tragically, she drowned. Elián’s relatives in Miami took him into their home following his rescue, but his father, Juan Miguel González, wanted him to return to Cuba.

“I think [Elián] should be reunited [with his father],” President Bill Clinton said at the time, “and in as prompt and as orderly a way as possible.”

For months, a legal battle played out on the national stage. The Clinton administration successfully (but controversially) fought to return the boy to his home country, and when the Miami relatives refused to surrender the boy, federal agents raided their home in the early hours of April 22, 2000, taking the boy away at gunpoint. Photographs of the incident may have affected the 2000 Presidential election, as Cuban-Americans in Florida were outraged at the administration’s tactics.

“This was, in the end, about a little boy who lost his mother and has not seen his father in more than five months,” Elián’s cousin Marisleysis González said at the time. “I hope, with time and support, Elian and his father will have the opportunity to be a strong family again.”

What happened next: Today, Elián is a fairly normal—if incredibly famous—24-year-old man. He studied engineering in college, and he hopes to visit the United States someday.

“I don’t do anything different than other young people,” he said in 2015 in an interview with Granma, the Cuban Communist Party’s daily publication. “I have fun, play sports, but I am also involved with the work of the revolution and realize that young people are essential for the development of the country.”


After returning to Cuba, Elián struck up a friendship with dictator Fidel Castro, who would regularly send him reading material.

“He likes to give me books,” Elián said of the late Cuban leader. “He sends me one whenever he can, and for me, it’s like getting homework—have to read it. I also enjoy reading the books by our former agents, because this also forms part of our history.”

Elian is an outspoken supporter of Cuba’s Communist government, and he’s easily one of the country’s most famous citizens. While his family intended to keep him out of the spotlight, that hasn’t exactly worked out.


And if you’re wondering how he feels today about his return to Cuba—well, at least publicly, he’s grateful.  

“Sometimes, we young people think that if we stop being a socialist country, and give way to capitalism, we will become a developed country like the United States, France, Italy,” Elián said in 2015, when he was 21 years old. “But it must be understood that if Cuba stops being socialist, it won’t be like the U.S., it would be a colony, it would be Haiti, a poor country, a lot poorer than it is now, and everything that has been achieved would be lost.”

“My life in Cuba I owe to this people, and it is for them that I will always work, struggle, to whom I owe all my respect,” he said. “Fifteen years after I returned, I realize that the Cuban people still consider me as part of their family, and this is my debt, to try to repay that love.”

Elián, back left, with his family (ABCNews)

If that sounds like the Cuban government is using Gonzalez—well, of course it sounds that way, the guy’s living in a communist dictatorship, and we’re not. With that said, he notes that people in the United States tried to use him as political propaganda, too.

“I think I would have become the poster boy for that group of Cubans in Miami that tries to destroy the revolution, that try to make Cuba look bad,” he said in a 2017 CNN interview. “I would have been used in that way. Maybe I would have become an actor on TV, or maybe I would have more money than I have here with more comforts, but I wouldn’t have my family. I wouldn’t have the tranquility I have in Cuba.”

Balloon Boy

The story: In October 2009, 6-year-old Falcon Heene floated 7,000 feet in the air in his father’s homemade helium balloon while rescue crews desperately tried to find a safe way to bring him down. Two hours into the dramatic event, the balloon—shaped like a giant spacecraft—landed 90 miles away from the Heene family’s Fort Collins, Colorado home.

But Falcon wasn’t in the balloon. In fact, he was hiding in an attic, safe and sound. The nation breathed a sigh of relief—then started asking questions. Why didn’t the family check the home thoroughly before insisting that Falcon was in the balloon?


Slowly, their story started to unravel. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewed the entire family, and in one of the most uncomfortable moments ever broadcast on live TV, Falcon insinuated that the entire event was a hoax.

“You guys said we did this for the show,” the boy said to his father, Richard Heene.

Investigators quickly determined that the family had planned the hoax. Richard and his wife, Mayumi, seemed to have an unhealthy fixation with fame. In fact, they’d previously appeared on ABC’s Wife Swap and Richard pitched a reality show earlier in 2009.

“We believe that we have evidence at this point to indicate that it was a publicity stunt done with the hopes of marketing themselves, or better marketing themselves, for a reality television show at some point in the future,” Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said. “Clearly, we were manipulated by the family. And the media was manipulated by the family.”

Huffington Post

Mayumi pled guilty to a misdemeanor (false reporting to authorities) and spent 20 days in jail with four years’ probation. Richard pled guilty to a felony count of attempting to influence a public servant, although later he claimed that he only agreed to plead guilty to save his wife from possible deportation. He still maintains that he didn’t plan the hoax or the ensuing media circus.

What happened next: Falcon Heene plays with his brothers Bradford and Ryo in the Heene Boyz, a music group billed as “the world’s youngest metal band.” They grabbed a few headlines when they began playing gigs in 2012 and released new music as late as 2015. We reached out to Falcon for a comment but didn’t hear back.


In case you’re wondering, Falcon plays bass and sings, Ryo plays the drums, and Bradford plays lead guitar. They’ve got a song called “Balloon Boy No Hoax,” which we’ve linked here (note that it contains some not-safe-for-work language, and it throws some serious shade at Wolf Blitzer).

“We want to stick together as a band until we’re about 80 years old,” Bradford told CNN in 2015.

They’re…actually not too bad. Shortly after the event, Richard launched several weird products, including Bear Scratch, a scratching post for humans. He says his family is still close, and their dream is to live together even after the kids reach college age.


“The ideal situation for us would be to have 10 to 15 acres, and have the kids live on that,” he told CNN. “And if they want to build a house over there, that’s fine. Or if we live like the guys from Dallas.”

In Dallas, each family member lived in their own wing of a giant mansion. Now that’s a reality show we’d watch.

Dolly the Cloned Sheep

The story: In 1996, scientists in Scotland successfully cloned a mammal for the first time (well, the first animals cloned from adult somatic cells, anyway; humans have been cloning animals for over a century, and Gizmodo’s io9 has a great read on that subject).

The sheep, named Dolly—after Dolly Parton, and we’ll explain why in a moment—was genetically identical to her “mother.” She was an incredible scientific achievement, but she was also fairly controversial.

Alexandr Vasilyev (via ScienceDaily)

Why? Well, the purpose of the experiment was to learn about genetics, potentially allowing for innovations in the treatment of genetic diseases, but pundits wondered whether Dolly was a precursor to human cloning. The researchers, of course, rejected that idea, but President Clinton launched a task force to explore the ethical issues posed by the new science. He also banned the use of federal funds for human cloning research.

“There is much about cloning that we still do not know,” he said at the time.

As for the sheep’s name, well, we’ll let embryologist Ian Wilmut, who led the project, explain.

Time and Dolly Parton (via Feels Like Nashville)

“Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell,” he said at the time, “and we couldn’t think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton’s.”

Scientists are kind of gross sometimes.

What happened next: You might want to sit down for this, because we’ve got some baaa-d news: Dolly passed away. Yes, we know, it’s terribly tragic that a sheep didn’t live 10 years past its natural life expectancy, but life is cruel.

Dolly was euthanized in February 2003 due to severe arthritis and a progressive lung disease. She was 6.5 years old; most sheep live about twice as long. She’d contracted a common virus that causes cancer in sheep—life’s especially cruel for sheep.   


That prompted some media outlets to report that Dolly’s health was affected by the unusual circumstances of her birth, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Four other sheep were cloned from the same cell as Dolly, and they didn’t develop the same health issues, other than some osteoarthritis.

“We … conclude that cloning … had no detrimental, latent effect on the cardiovascular system of sheep in this study that survived into late adulthood,” wrote researchers in the accurately titled scientific paper Healthy Ageing of Cloned Sheep.


“Metabolically and cardiovascular-wise, they were indistinguishable from other sheep of that age,” veterinarian Sandra Corr said of Dolly’s cloned sisters. “We found that the majority of sheep were really very healthy considering their age … were cloning to accelerate aging, we would’ve seen it in this group.”

Jessica McClure, The Girl in the Well

The story: At about 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 14, 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell into an abandoned well near her aunt’s home daycare center in Midland, Texas. The exact details of the accident are lost to time; according to family members, the well had been covered.

Jessica survived, but she was trapped for the next 58 hours while rescue teams scrambled to save her life. Police arrived on the scene quickly, but there was little they could do at first.


“We used our flashlights to look down the hole, but we never could get a visual on her,” police officer Bobbie Jo Hall told People. “We didn’t get one until later in the afternoon, when we lowered a video camera down there and got a side view of her. The mother was pretty panicky. She was frantic. She was starting to go into shock, I thought. I just tried to get her talking. I told her I had children too, so I understood how she felt. I told her we weren’t going to let her baby die.”

Rescuers drilled into the side of the well over the next two days, working at about an inch an hour. Miraculously, Jessica survived, and her rescue quickly captured national headlines.

Bettmann/CORBIS (via TheDailyMail)

“She was the prettiest little girl I ever seen when we got her out,” Midland paramedic Robert O’Donnell said shortly after the incident.

What happened next: Jessica, now 32, has no memory of the accident or rescue. In fact, she learned about the ordeal when watching an episode of Rescue 911 when she was five years old. Driven to tears while watching the episode, she asked her stepmother about the girl in the video and learned that it was her. Today, she looks back on the accident with optimism.

“I had God on my side that day,” she told People in 2017. “My life is a miracle.”

Sonya N. Hebert/Dallas Morning News (via NY Daily News)

Of course, she sustained serious injuries in the initial fall. She had 15 surgeries after the accident but decided to keep a small scar on her forehead that was caused by rubbing against the well casing while she awaited rescue.

“It shows who I am, and the fact that I am here and I could not have been here,” she told Today.

After her story went viral—whatever that term meant in 1987—she received over a million dollars in donations from people around the world. Unfortunately, she lost most of that money in the stock market crash of the early 2000s, but she had enough to buy a modest house in Midland.

The White House (via UPI )

“I think it’s amazing that people would come together like that to donate money to a child that was not theirs. I appreciate everything they did,” she said.

Jessica is currently a special-education teacher’s aide at an elementary school, and she still answers to “Baby Jessica.” People in Midland know about her history, and they sometimes remind her of it. Once, while leaving a restaurant, she stumbled on the curb.

“A little old man said that to me, he said, ‘You are the baby that fell in the well, right?’” she recalled to NBC’s Matt Lauer. “‘I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘Well, I thought you’d learned how to watch your step when you were two years old.’”

Julian Dufort (via People)

Today, she keeps a fairly low profile—not because she’s worried about fame, but because she doesn’t want her life to overshadow her children, 10-year-old Simon and 8-year-old Sheyenne. Her husband, Danny, is a foreman at a pipe supply company. She’s protective of her kids, but she tries not to let her own history inform her parenting.

“I am a little [overprotective],” she said of her son Simon. “I kind of get a little excited every time he gets a bump or a bruise. I have learned that he’s going to get many, and there’s nothing I can really do about it. He’s going to fall down, and he’s going to bust his face open, and he’s going to do it several different times.”

In fact, we can say with relative confidence that she’s living the most “normal” life of all of the people on this list—putting aside the cloned sheep, of course.

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