The internet is an odd universe where absurdity and non-sequiturs reign. Those in search of logic or explanation will usually invariably become frustrated and fail. The eccentricity of the internet is most evident in the popularity of memes—the impossible to predict and even more difficult to explain viral bits of humor that seem to spread across the world wide web faster than the speed of light.
While memes will take on lives of their own online, they will invariably sweep up a couple of living, breathing humans (or animals) in their wake. In some cases, the true stories of how a meme came to be or the real-life effect it has on people are much more fascinating than the latest digital riff. Here are a few of the most surprising viral meme back stories.
The Overly Attached Girlfriend Was in on the Joke
Most have seen the Overly Attached Girlfriend meme: a wide-eyed bottomless pit of adoration and infatuation. Some of the web’s favorite versions of her have been “I’m going to learn all your mom’s favorite recipes…so you’ll never need her again” and “So I ran into your ex…with my car.”
But if you thought the meme stemmed from one particularly uncomfortable Skype date you’d be wrong. It all began with college student Laina Morris, who decided to submit to a Justin Bieber contest to create a “Girlfriend” match to his 2012 hit song “Boyfriend.” Morris’s video submission featured a version of the character that would later be immortalized in meme history. Before the Reddit army had its swing at the Overly Attached Girlfriend, Morris penned and sang such lines as “If I was your girlfriend / I’d never let you leave / without a small recording device /
Morris’s original video rocketed to over a million views, but it was a Redditor with the username of yeahhtoast who posted a screenshot of her fixated face that propelled Morris and the “Overly Attached Girlfriend” meme into the hall of viral legends. Morris was able to take the newfound fame and run with it, quitting her job and leaving school to turn her YouTube channel into a full-time job.
Says Morris in an interview with Refinery29: “I don’t know if this is going to ‘work out.’ Maybe someday this will just be a cool thing that happened to me, but I’ll make videos as long as I enjoy it and people are watching.”
Going from college student to self-supporting YouTube personality? That’s quite an outcome from one funny video shot in a Texas dorm room.
The IKEA Monkey No Longer Shops at IKEA (and That’s a Good Thing)
In winter 2012, the internet saw something that warmed its collective hearts: a young macaque monkey named Darwin sashaying around a Canadian IKEA in a majestic shearling coat. The images spawned many questions and even more jokes as the IKEA Monkey meme was born.
But as much as humanity loved to see Darwin just trying to find a good POÄNG chair like the rest of us, his outfit and his presence in that IKEA were incredibly problematic from an animal rights perspective. Namely: 7-month-old monkeys are not supposed to be wearing coats and are definitely not supposed to be wandering around in IKEA parking lots.
Darwin was, of course, not shopping. He had escaped from his owner’s car and was likely very stressed and afraid during his IKEA adventure. Darwin’s owner, Yasmin Nadhuka, was eventually fined for keeping a prohibited animal. After a court battle, Darwin was brought to the Stony Brook Farm Primate Sanctuary in Ontario.
According to Stony Brook co-owner Daina Liepa, these days the full-grown Darwin is “mischievous,” thoroughly enjoys peanut butter, and has not worn a shearling coat in years. He also loves to play: “His favorite toy at the moment is we tear up bits of sheeting and he’ll put the sheet around his head and he literally looks as if he’s flying like Superman, jumping from one area to another. It’s hilarious watching him.”
The Ermahgerd Girl May Not Be Such a “Dwerb”
The “Ermahgerd Gersberms” girl was yet another meme out of 2012 (which, honestly, was like a Hall of Fame year for memes) that showcased a hopelessly dweeby adolescent in pig-tails and a couch-material vest flaunting her Goosebumps collection with unbridled enthusiasm. The image and the promulgation of “Ermahgerd” language, for which there’s actually now an instant translator, became a popular meme for that year and many after.
The meme originated when a Reddit user found the original image of Maggie Goldenberger clutching the Goosebumps novellas on a Facebook photo album. The user shared it and another Redditor later added the caption “GERSBERMS. MAH FRAVRIT BERKS” onto it. The meme took off from there. It is interesting, however, that the image at the heart of the meme is not exactly the awkward tween years gem many believed it to be.
As Goldenberger told Vanity Fair, the photo was not exactly a snapshot of her on an average day with her “
On the day the now-infamous photo was snapped, Goldenberger “put on the vest, hoisted her hair up into intentionally dorky pigtails—she never wore them like that otherwise—brandished the chosen books, and pulled an intentionally hideous face for the camera.”
Because the image was supposed to be a joke, Goldenberger does not mind having her face be part of ridiculous internet history. Though she’ll occasionally get a kick out of the variations of the “Ermahgerd” meme, for the most
“Roll Safe” Wasn’t Giving Advice (But You Should Still Listen to Him)
One of the first memes of 2017 (and one that was mercifully unrelated to a certain impossible-to-ignore politician) was that of “Roll Safe”—a temple-tapping distributor of sage advice. The meme usually provides a bit of sly insight with a mischievous grin from Nigerian-British actor Kayode Ewumi. One of the first and most popular bits of wisdom was Twitter user @RyanWindoww’s “You can’t be broke if you don’t check your bank account.”
Interestingly enough, the screenshot of Ewumi was not of him giving advice, but instead a follow-up to a cheeky joke about a girl he was meeting. The screenshot in question is from a BBC Three series called Hood Documentary that aired last summer. In the series, Ewumi plays a character named “Roll Safe” (aka “R.S.” aka “Reece”) who dispenses ridiculous guidance, witticisms, and self-promotion to a documentary crew.
Unlike many meme luminaries, comedic actor Ewumi actually had his public moment before his meme fame. He had been playing character R.S. for a while, providing funny Twitter moments such as this one and getting a nice profile from BuzzFeed a full year before
While the meme fame has been nice and propelled the actor to get love all the way from Nigeria, it will likely be only a blip on the road for Ewumi who had also already been cast in the BBC’s reboot of Are You Being Served?
The Ups and Downs of “Alex from Target”
Alex LaBeouf, a 16-year-old from Frisco, Texas, was yet another innocent person who was swept up in a meme hurricane when a British Twitter user posted an image she found on Tumblr of the red t-shirt wearing Alex bagging things at Target with the comment “YOOOOOOOOOOO.” The image spread like wildfire, but while the internet was falling in love Alex was working another Target shift and had no idea.
Slowly, some Target shoppers started to shower Alex with extra attention and a little later in the back storeroom, Alex checked his phone and was somewhat clued into what was happening.
The next few days and weeks would be a whirlwind. Alex appeared on Ellen and was instantly the most popular high schooler in Texas, if not the entire United States. But while he fielded offers from advertisers and other network morning shows, some unsavory forces emerged from the woodwork. A tech company called Breakr claimed responsibility for #AlexFromTarget, sending the internet into an innocence-shattering depression spiral. The CEO later clarified that he said his company’s “fangirl community” had helped launch the meme (also a dubious claim).
In addition to the
The Ultimate Success for “Success Kid”
At 11-months-old, Sammy Griner might have been one of the youngest people to ever become a meme. His mother, Laney, had posted a picture of Sammy clutching a handful of sand and the internet ran with it, turning Sammy into the “Success Kid” who celebrated life’s small victories with a fist pump and a face of determination.
The internet fame was not a nightmare, but it wasn’t exactly welcome. Laney stated that years later, Sammy was “beginning to feel some embarrassment” about his earliest years as a meme. Not surprisingly, Sammy wants to be known and appreciated for who he is as a kid today, not as an image that made the rounds on Reddit years ago.
However, the power of Sammy’s fame ended up playing a critical role for the Griner family when they were able to leverage it to raise money to get Sammy’s father, Justin, a new kidney. Justin Griner had been dealing with failing kidneys since before Sammy was born and underwent dialysis for six years. When the family started a GoFundMe page to finally get Justin the new kidney he needed, it was the viral capital of “Success Kid” that helped push the fundraising past the $90K mark.
It was a perfect example of how the internet, like the humanity that connects to it, can seem completely bonkers but pleasantly surprise you in the end.